For more on spiritual gifts, check out Thomas Schreiner’s new book, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter (B&H Books, 2018).
Is it important to know your spiritual gifts? Or is that concern evidence of the narcissism so characteristic of our culture today?
Perhaps we can compare figuring out our spiritual gifts to the current interest in personality tests and profiles like the Enneagram. The Enneagram explores nine different personality types and has made quite a splash in evangelical circles. Kevin DeYoung rightly warns about the dangers of the Enneagram, explaining that it’s alien to Scripture in many respects. Russell Moore is sympathetic to what DeYoung says, agreeing that the Enneagram isn’t helpful if embraced root and branch, but thinks it can be used as a tool to discern and understand one’s potential strengths and weaknesses, as well as the motivating desires and inclinations of others.
I think we can say something similar about the process of discerning spiritual gifts.
Spiritual Gift Tests?
Over the years, it has been popular to use spiritual gift inventories and questionnaires to help believers discover their spiritual gifts. The major problem with these tools is that they’re an abstraction; we can take those tests and try to discover our gifts without being involved in the life of the local church. When used this way, spiritual gift inventories are artificial and even misleading.
Spiritual gifts can’t be traced in a laboratory like DNA.
They’re artificial because we don’t and can’t discover how God has gifted us in isolation from others. Gifts can’t be traced in a laboratory like DNA. The questionnaires are also misleading because the tests themselves, even if helpful in some respects, are inevitably partial and flawed. In other words, the inventories are produced by humans who have their own biases and preconceptions, and thus believers may wrongly come away from such an inventory thinking they have a particular gift when they don’t. On the other hand, they may think they don’t have a gift after taking the inventory when they do.
Discovery Through the Life of a Church
The best way to discover your gift, then, is not by taking a test. They didn’t have such instruments in the early church, and people discovered and used their gifts just fine! Rather, if you get involved in the lives of others in your church and love as Jesus commanded, then you will discover your gift.
If you get involved in the lives of others in your church and love as Jesus commanded, then you will discover your gift.
Some might say they still don’t know their gift. But knowing your spiritual gift isn’t as important as exercising your spiritual gift. Surely many believers in history didn’t know their spiritual gifts or think much about them, and yet they exercised those gifts in powerful ways. If you aren’t sure what your spiritual gifts are, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you give yourself to other believers in the church, you will inevitably be using your gifts.
All of this brings us back to the matter of spiritual gift inventories. If you’re involved in the life of the church and take such an inventory, it might prove helpful. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves clearly, and other believers and resources can help us discern where we’re gifted. Obviously such tools can used in a narcissistic and self-absorbed way, but it’s also true that understanding ourselves better may help us become more effective ministers.
The importance of knowing ourselves is clear from Romans 12:3:
For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.
Here Paul warns us neither to have an inflated view of ourselves, nor to denigrate ourselves, but to know and assess ourselves rightly. We know that mistakes can be made in both directions regarding spiritual gifts. Some might say their gifts aren’t important and aren’t needed in the body (1 Cor. 12:15–16). Some might say they don’t need the other gifts and members of the body (1 Cor. 12:21). But every member is needed, every member plays an important role, every member is significant.
Every member of the body is needed, every member plays an important role, every member is significant.
When we look at some of the spiritual gifts, it becomes clear that knowing our gifts is helpful (even if not essential). For instance, Paul says those with the gift of service should concentrate on serving, those with the gift of teaching on teaching, and those with the gift of exhortation on exhorting (Rom. 12:7–8). If you know your gift is exhorting, you can focus your energies. This doesn’t mean you don’t serve or do evangelism or give counsel, of course. We shouldn’t twist what Paul says into an excuse to be selfish. Still, life is short, and we should concentrate on our strengths, because in doing so we build up the church.
Knowing our strengths and gifts helps us to focus on the ways we can be most helpful to other believers. If you don’t know your gift yet, don’t worry. It’ll become clear as time passes, and asking other believers can help you discern your gift. We’re often in a great hurry to find our gifts, but God isn’t. He has a purpose and plan to use you in the life of your church, and it will become clear as you serve him and others.